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Month: September 2019


In an article published Wednesday — “Was Lionel Messi Tired?” — we proposed that Messi’s sometimes-criticized “work rate” — the fact that he appears to cover less distance on the field per minute than just about any non-goalkeeper — might actually be an important part of what makes him as good as he is.It’s a counterintuitive possibility and would fly in the face of conventional wisdom, as well as decades of soccer coaching. But at the very least, it deserves to be considered.And this wouldn’t be the first time the conventional wisdom seemed lacking with regard to Messi.For example, Messi hardly ever uses “crossing passes” to set up other players. Such passes have traditionally been considered a cornerstone of soccer offense, and empirically they’re still the dominant method of delivering the ball into the penalty area. In the Opta play-by-play data set, about 42 percent of such deliveries are crosses, yet Messi has eschewed them as far back as our data goes (his comparable rate is less than 10 percent).Meanwhile, recent research suggests that crossing passes aren’t as good as people have long thought. Cursory analysis supports those findings: Non-cross passes into the penalty area seem to lead to goals slightly more often than crosses.But even if we assume the balance between crosses and not crosses was optimal, there would seem to be an even better reason why Messi doesn’t use them: comparative advantage. Although he’s good and productive when he uses crosses, he’s even better when he doesn’t. The following chart compares regular open-play (non-set-piece) passes into the penalty area by Messi and by everyone, from crosses and not-crosses:There’s this thing that everyone does that’s supposedly super-important. Except that it’s not as good as people think it is. And though Messi’s good at it, he’s better at something else. So he does that instead.Just how rare is it to cross so little?This sort of thing is style-dependent. Barcelona runs a more possession-based offense (crosses are the favored technique of the up-down, attacking-style soccer traditionally favored by England), yet Barca players other than Messi use crosses to deliver to the penalty area about 30 percent of the time — much, much closer to the 42 percent average of teams in the big five soccer leagues than to Messi’s rate.Messi also plays in the center above the box, which means he’s in position to cross less often. But this is true of many players, and Messi makes more non-cross passes and fewer cross passes (relatively) than anyone (including even midfielders):Much like how Messi “takes on” more defenders than anyone — because he’s better at it than anyone — on non-cross passes into the penalty area, Messi has an edge he likes, so he hammers it and hammers it and hammers it. read more


On Friday, an arbitrator overturned the indefinite suspension of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, who violently assaulted his then-fiancee (now wife) in an elevator in February. The arbitrator found that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell was not misled by Rice when Goodell initially suspended Rice for two games, and that Goodell’s decision to extend Rice’s ban — following enormous public outcry after the release of a more graphic video of the incident — was “arbitrary.”The ruling means Rice is free to sign with any NFL team, and reports Sunday were that at least four teams were interested. Ethically, there’s no escaping Rice’s scandal and the probable uproar his signing would bring to whichever team takes a chance on him. But there’s also the question of whether Rice is even worth having on the field.From 2009 to 2012, Rice was arguably the best running back in football. But in 2013, he was horrific, ranking last in yards per rush among RBs with at least 200 carries. In fact, restricting the comparison to his contemporaries actually understates how bad Rice was a year ago; among all historical NFL running back seasons of 200 or more carries, only five saw a lower yards-per-carry average than Rice’s 3.08 mark in 2013.Yards per carry isn’t everything, of course. It can be highly volatile from year to year (or even within the same season), overly responsive to a handful of anomalous long runs and not representative of the fact that, when they run the ball, coaches are trying to maximize “success rate” — the rate at which a play increases the team’s expected points — not yards per play.But Rice also had the league’s worst success rate among running backs with 200 or more carries in 2013. And spearheaded by Rice, the Ravens’ rushing offense was the least efficient in football. Furthermore, Pro Football Focus’s play-by-play grading metrics, which measure how well a player fulfilled his responsibilities on a given play, rated Rice as the worst halfback in the NFL a season ago — not only because he was the worst rusher (by far), but also because he was the league’s fifth-worst blocker at the position. (It doesn’t help Rice that his replacement on the Ravens, Justin Forsett, is averaging 5.6 yards per carry and already has 349 more rushing yards this season than Rice had in 2013 — on 35 fewer carries.)So, by any standard, Rice was awful when he last played. And at age 27, he’s at the point on the running back aging curve where production starts to fall off a cliff. FiveThirtyEight contributor Chase Stuart looked at a cohort of recent RBs who had good careers (at least 5,000 career rushing yards and 40 rushing yards per game) and found that nearly a third of them were washed up by the end of their age 28 season. Almost two-thirds were finished by age 29.Even after his reinstatement (and the requisite quotes about Rice having stayed in “great shape” during the ban), Rice is unlikely to contribute to a team in any meaningful way this season. So whoever signs him is looking at maybe two more seasons of any productivity from him — and that’s without factoring in a year of rust and just how bad Rice was when he last took the field. Combined with the seemingly inevitable backlash his signing will cause, it’s tough to find any logical reason to give Rice another chance in the NFL. read more


Welcome to the latest episode of Hot Takedown, FiveThirtyEight’s sports podcast. On this week’s show (May 17, 2016), we talk about the Western Conference finals and wonder whether the Warriors are really on the ropes after Monday night’s loss to the Thunder. Then FiveThirtyEight’s Christie Aschwanden makes her Hot Takedown debut to talk about how concussions are different in women’s sports than men’s. Finally, we talk to Ben Morris about sumo wrestling and break down how a centuries-old data set can help us determine who is the greatest fighter of all time. Plus, a significant digit on the advanced statistics making their way to the WNBA.Neil Paine says the Thunder’s big men could stop the Warriors.Neil also says the Thunders-Warriors series is the strongest conference final matchup in decades.ESPN Stats and Info breaks down the numbers behind the Thunder’s victory in Game 1.Sorry, Rasheed, the ball does lie, writes The Wall Street Journal.Women get sports concussions at higher rates than men, writes Christie Aschwanden.And here is Christie’s column, Strength In Numbers, where she explores the science of sports and athleticism.Benjamin Morris on the sumo matchup centuries in the making.And here is FiveThirtyEight’s history of sumo in chart form.Also, read this Grantland profile of Hakuho, the greatest sumo wrestler of our time.Significant Digit: 1997. That’s the year the WNBA has announced it will go back to when it releases box score stats for every completed league game. More: Apple Podcasts | ESPN App | RSS | Embed FiveThirtyEight Embed Code If you’re a fan of our podcasts, be sure to subscribe on Apple Podcasts and leave a rating/review. That helps spread the word to other listeners. And get in touch by email, on Twitter or in the comments. Tell us what you think, send us hot takes to discuss and tell us why we’re wrong. read more


The winners of these two matches will play each other on July 9 at 4 p.m. EDT. See our World Cup predictions for the latest probabilities.In DepthThe second- and third-lowest-scoring teams to make the quarterfinals of this World Cup square off against each other in Saturday’s early game (Belgium, with six goals, vs. Argentina, with seven), and then the lowest-scoring team (Costa Rica, with five goals) faces the highest-scoring side (the Netherlands, which has scored 12).Let’s look at Belgium vs. Argentina first.Since Argentina ignominiously exited the 2010 World Cup with a second consecutive quarterfinal loss to Germany, little Lionel Messi has been dominating the world of soccer like nothing we’ve seen in modern times.After scoring only one goal in both his previous World Cup tournaments combined, this year he’s taken the tournament by storm, scoring four goals (including a stoppage-time game-winner against Iran) in his first three matches, and recording the game-winning assist with just minutes remaining in the fourth.Stoking questions about whether it relies too much on Messi, however, the rest of his team has been awful on offense; Argentina’s other players have managed to put the same number of balls into their opponents’ nets (one) as those opponents have themselves (Bosnia’s own goal). Argentina’s shooting breaks down like so:Messi has scored on four of 16 shots (including converting three of 11 attempts from outside the penalty area).In the 18 shots set up by Messi (the highest number of chances created by any player going into the quarterfinals), Argentina has scored once (Angel di Maria’s game-winner against Switzerland).In the 46 shots Messi was not involved in, Argentina has scored only once, failing to score on all 42 attempts from outside the 6-yard box.Thus — despite having Messi, and despite Messi playing brilliantly — Argentina has only scored on 7.5 percent of its shot attempts, second-worst among quarterfinalists.Belgium, on the other hand, has seen six different players score. But that’s only six goals; even though Belgium has taken a tournament-leading 21 shots per game, the Red Devils have scored on only 7.2 percent of those shots, the worst of all quarterfinalists.Belgium has largely gotten by on excellent goalkeeping, with Thibaut Courtois allowing only two goals despite facing 13 shots on goal worth 4.84 expected goals (using ESPN/TruMedia’s Expected Goals model). His .22 “goals allowed below average” (GABA) per shot is the highest of remaining goalies (higher is better).Another team with good goalkeeping so far is Costa Rica, whose Keylor Navas has saved 14 of 16 shots on goal, with an average GABA of .21 per shot, good for second behind Courtois.Neither Costa Rica nor the Netherlands are what you’d call possession teams: Despite their impressive run, the Netherlands has held the ball just 44 percent of the time, and Costa Rica has held it 42 percent (the only other quarterfinalist with less than 50 percent possession was Colombia, with 46 percent). The flip side of playing this way is that these two teams also lead quarterfinalists in average pass distance (21.7 and 20.8 yards, respectively).But for the most part, Costa Rica seems badly overmatched. While they’ve shot a respectable 14.3 percent, that’s mostly because they’ve been unable to get shots at all — they’ve taken about nine shots per game, averaging only three on goal. Both those figures are by far the lowest of any remaining squad.The Netherlands, on the other hand, had one the most impressive runs into the quarterfinals. The Dutch faced the most difficult route (their opponents had an average Soccer Power Index rating of 80.0), but so far have the second-highest goal differential at +8.The Netherlands has been far superior on contested plays. When taking on defenders, the Flying Dutchmen have been successful a whopping 69 percent of the time. That compares to just 31 percent for Costa Rica. The Netherlands has won contested balls in the air at a 57 percent rate, compared to 36 percent for Costa Rica.In trying to find what, aside from good fortune and good goalkeeping, has driven Costa Rica’s gritty run (it’s scraped by against the second-hardest schedule), just about the only thing I could come up with was evidence of how well it’s run the offside trap. Costa Rica has drawn an enormous number of offsides calls: It’s pulled its opponents offsides 28 times (the next-most among quarterfinalists was 12, by Germany).Overall, our World Cup odds give Argentina a 14.9 percent chance of winning it all, the Netherlands an 11.8 percent chance, Belgium a 2.3 percent chance, and Costa Rica a 0.7 percent chance.YesterdayIn the first competitive match between France and Germany since the semifinals of the 1986 World Cup, Germany took the lead early with a headed goal by defender Mats Hummels. It was Hummels’s second goal of the World Cup, making him the first defender to score twice in this year’s tournament (he would get company later in the day). Both of Hummels’s goals have been headers, and both have been by assisted by Toni Kroos.For Germany, headers are nothing new: Over the past 50 years (as far back as ESPN Stats & Info’s data set goes), Germany has scored 37 headed goals in World Cup play, nearly twice as many as any other country (Italy has 19). Scoring first — by head or foot — has been Germany’s recipe for success in the World Cup, especially as of late. The Germans are 21-0-2 in their last 23 World Cup matches when scoring first, their last loss coming in the 1994 quarterfinals to Bulgaria.France, on the other hand, trailed for the first time at this year’s tournament, and still has never won in a World Cup match when trailing at halftime, losing all 11 times. Les Bleus made efforts to equalize, ending up with more shots (13) than Germany (8), and more chances created (10 to 7). But it was all for naught.In Friday’s second match, Brazil opened the scoring in the seventh minute, its fastest goal of the tournament. The goal came from a Neymar corner kick, his first assist of the tournament. It was Thiago Silva’s first career World Cup goal, and it was Brazil’s third goal from a corner, tied with France and Germany for the most in this World Cup.Brazil was in control for the remainder of the first half, completing seven of 15 passes into the attacking penalty area and creating seven total chances. Neymar created four chances, including the assist; Colombia, as a team, created two in the first half.Brazil extended its lead to 2-0 on defender David Luiz’s 34-yard free kick, the second-longest goal of the tournament. Luiz failed to score in his first 39 career international appearances, but he has found the back of the net in his last two. Brazil has now taken a two-goal lead in a World Cup match 49 times, and has won all 49.The breakout star in the tournament so far, Colombia’s James Rodriguez, converted a penalty to give his side hope; he scored in all five of his games in the tournament. It was his sixth goal, giving him a two-goal lead in the race for the Golden Boot. Colombia scored five goals combined in its last two World Cup appearances (1994 and 1998).Brazil and Germany’s semifinal meeting on Tuesday will, incredibly, mark only the second time these two countries have met at the World Cup. The other was the 2002 final, won by Brazil 2-0. — Jacob Nitzberg, senior statistics analyst, ESPNOff the PitchThe Netherlands and Costa Rica have been friends for a while. In fact, the Dutch were a big source of aid to the Costa Ricans until recently, when the latter ascended to middle-income status. The relationship has gradually shifted to focus more on trade and economic cooperation, but it’s still worth looking at the aid the Netherlands provided over the years.AidData reports that the Dutch sent about $362.5 million Costa Rica’s way between 1978 and 2010. The bulk allocation changed with time, and in the 1980s seemed to focus on industry growth, with $1 million going toward agriculture in 1981, $31 million toward imports to Costa Rica in 1984 and $7 million toward forestry in 1989. The ‘90s began a slow transition, with $17 million spent on multisector industry growth in 1994, $22 million on debt alleviation in 1996 and $21 million on general environmental protection in 1997. With this final pivot, it looks like Costa Rica found its stride — environmental protection continued to be the focus of Dutch aid through 2006, with a final peak of $17 million. Since then, Costa Rica’s tourism industry has boomed, and Dutch aid has all but completely ended.Further ReadingMohawks, Faux-hawks And Macklemores: The Top-Heavy Hairdos of the World CupThe World Cup USMNT Replacement Team Power RankingsStop Making Sense It’s Old Dutch Empire vs. Old Spanish Empire day, as Argentina (independent from Spain since 1816) takes on Belgium (independent from the Netherlands since 1830), and Costa Rica (independent from Spain since 1821) takes on the Netherlands itself.In BriefArgentina vs. Belgium: 12 p.m. EDTNetherlands vs. Costa Rica 4 p.m. EDT read more


Friday, Feb 27, 3:28 p.m.The panel: “Commissioner’s Perspective: 1 on 1 with Rob Manfred”The panelists: Brian Kenny, Rob ManfredRob Manfred has a long history with Major League Baseball. And Major League Baseball has long tried to avoid letting its history weigh it down. In a wide-ranging interview at Sloan on Friday, one month into his tenure as league commissioner, Manfred sounded like a man trying to make sense of how to reform a game without hollowing it out.A few days ago, Manfred said that there was a universe in which baseball could shave eight games off its regular-season schedule “sometime down the road.” A reduction in the current 162-game schedule could make the sport’s playoff timing a little more flexible, and might increase fan interest in each game. At Sloan, Manfred said he chose the 154-game mark because it would take the majors “back to a number that’s already in our record books.” Could he see MLB going even lower, to 150? No, because then “you’re going to go have a record book with 150, 154, 162 …” Only in baseball, a sport hallowed enough to get the Ken Burns treatment, could the record book be more important than the ledger. Integrity is paramount. (Or as Manfred, who has worked for the league for nearly two decades, put it when talking about whether to reform gambling laws around sports betting: “Integrity, it’s Rule One.”)Yet this is a commissioner who clearly wants to find ways to change the game. Manfred has introduced rules to speed the pace of play, and said Friday he’s very happy with the replay system MLB added last year. He said that in the future — “past Rob Manfred” — the league could have a team outside North America, and before that, maybe even one in Mexico. Now that would be historic. — Chadwick Matlin Sunday, March 1 12:17 a.m.After what conference co-organizer Jessica Gelman said was a “heated discussion,” voters for the top research paper at Sloan reached a split decision and split the $30,000 prize pool between two papers. The winners:Who is Responsible for a Called Strike? by Joe Rosales and Scott SprattCounterpoints: Advanced Defensive Metrics for NBA Basketball by Alexander Franks, Andrew Miller, Luke Bornn and Kirk GoldsberryRosales and Spratt, both of Baseball Info Solutions, presented work suggesting that pitch framing, which has traditionally rewarded most of the credit to catchers alone, is actually a function of three independent participants: the catcher, pitcher, and umpire.Franks, Miller, Bornn, and Goldsberry — all members of Harvard’s XY Hoops group — used player tracking data to quantify individual defensive play in the NBA. The academic version of this group’s paper has been accepted at the statistics journal Annals of Applied Statistics.The groups behind the winning papers each received $15,000 for their efforts. Additionally, Bornn and Goldsberry, along with co-authors Alex D’Amour and Dan Cervone, received the conference’s top poster prize of $1,000 for “Move or Die: How Ball Movement Creates Open Shots in the NBA.” — Mike Lopez Friday, Feb 27, 11:55 a.m.Daryl Morey has been as instrumental to the rise of the Sloan conference as he has been to the rise of the Houston Rockets. Morey, the general manager of the Rockets, has steered the team to third place in the Western conference — behind MVP-candidate James Harden, whom he acquired in a now-legendary 2012 trade — and helped start the Sloan conference in 2007. At Sloan on Friday, I boxed him out to ask a few questions about advanced basketball analytics, specifically player-tracking data from companies like STATS’ SportVU technology. While he can’t divulge the details of the Rockets’ private statistics, Morey’s remarks about the publicly available numbers are especially insightful because the Rockets are one of the most stats-savvy teams — not just in the NBA, but in all of sports. — Andrew FlowersAudio Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/flowers_morey.mp300:0000:0000:00Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume. Saturday, Feb. 28 3:15 p.m.Will sports betting inevitably become legal in the U.S.? It sure seems like it.Momentum behind legalization has grown since NBA Commissioner Adam Silver wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times in November 2014 explicitly endorsing legal sports gambling. The facade of professional sports leagues that oppose sports betting is beginning to crack. And it’s clear why: money.Silver estimated the market for illegal sports wagering is currently $400 billion per year, though it’s likely that figure is inflated. But even lower-end estimates of around $80 billion still represent a huge market. Sports betting is already enormous in Europe, Australia and many other regions. State governments want in because of the potential revenues.Professional sports leagues are intrigued because they see gambling interest as a ratings driver, much like fantasy sports have been. (And, coincidentally, daily fantasy sports sites – with cash prizes – bear an eerie resemblance to gambling anyway.) Gambling is already inherently analytical; but the appetite of stats-savvy fans for geeky coverage about odds is growing. Jeff Ma, a contributor to ESPN’s new sports-betting site, Chalk – said gambling analytics would meet the demand from those with a “high-brow” interest.But there are major risks to legalization. The revelations that former NBA referee Tim Donaghy owed gambling debts and bet on games he officiated was a reminder of the long, scandalous history of how gambling can challenge the integrity of sports. Here, too, analytics can help. Ryan Rodenberg, a professor at Florida State University, suggested statistical scrutiny of betting markets would combat fraud and fixing. Several private European firms already specialize in such analytics.The panelists were asked that if they had to bet on legalization sweeping the country, when it would happen. The lines offered by the panelists ranged from 2-to-10 years. Dan Spillane, the Assistant General Counsel for the NBA, didn’t offer a timeline, however. He just said “years, not months.” — Andrew Flowers Saturday, Feb. 28, 1:00 p.m.The session: “Analytics of the Tommy John Injury Epidemic”The speaker: Glenn FleisigWe’re in the midst of an epidemic of elbow injuries among major league pitchers. Twenty-five percent of current MLB pitchers have had an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction (“Tommy John surgery”) and 15 percent of minor league pitchers have undergone the procedure. Over the last decade, the problem has trickled down to high school and little league players. In 1990, none of the baseball players coming to the Andrews Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center clinic Tommy John surgery were kids. Today, one third of them are high school age or younger, said Fleisig, the research director at the American Sports Medicine Institute.What’s to blame for the epidemic of torn elbow ligaments? Are more players getting hurt? Or are we just better at diagnosing these injuries? Are doctors more willing to do the procedure? Or are patients more eager to have it?The answer, said Fleisig, is all of the above. Some players assume they should go in for surgery at the first sign of elbow pain, just “to get it over,” but that’s the wrong attitude. Best case scenario, the surgery can return a player to the career trajectory he was on before he got injured, but it won’t improve performance and not every player makes it back to play, Fleisig said.About 80 percent of major league players who get Tommy John surgeries make it back to the mound, but only two thirds of those who undergo the procedure make it back and stay there.Most elbow ligament injuries occur due to overuse. During the middle part of the pitch when the elbow is held upright at a right angle, the joint experiences severe torque. “It’s like holding a string with five 12-pound bowling balls,” Fleisig said. (That’s why doping raises the risk of an elbow injury — “If you’re on the juice you’re making your muscles too strong for your tendons and ligaments to handle.”)There’s a common notion that curveballs are dangerous, but the research doesn’t bear that out, Fleisig said. “We expected the curveball to have more torque than the fastball, but it turns out it has less.”Four things determine which players get injured — biomechanics, how much a player pitches, training and recovery. “It’s not one of these things or the other, it’s all of them,” Fleisig said.Wear and tear on the elbow is one of the most important factors, and when Fleisig’s group followed a group of 500 kids over a ten-year period, they found that pitching more than 100 competitive innings more than tripled the risk of needing a Tommy John surgery. Likewise, more than 80 pitches per game quadrupled the risk of injury, and kids who pitched when fatigued had 36 times the risk of having surgery.In an effort to cut the rates of elbow injuries among young pitchers, Fleisig and his colleagues have teamed with Major League Baseball to create Pitch Smart, age-appropriate guidelines to avoid injury. Suggestions include limits on the number of pitches thrown and not pitching when fatigued. “The best computer we have is right here,” Fleisig told me, pointing to his head. — Christie Aschwanden Saturday, Feb. 28 4:05 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28, 11:20 a.m. Friday, Feb 27, 12:21 p.m.The Panel: “Valuing Franchises: How Sports Teams Break the DCF”The Panelists: Lyle Ayes, Aswath Damodaran, Joe McNulty, Randy Vataha, Abe Madkour (moderator)The recent sales of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Clippers for over $2 billion have opened up a new paradigm in sports franchise valuations. As shocking as the price of those transactions may have been, the mood at this Sloan panel was buoyant. In fact, panelists seemed to be most worried about prices getting so high that billionaires would be priced out of the market. As Lyle Ayes, managing director of the investment bank Evercore’s sports advisory practice said, “how many people can pay $4 billion for an asset?”Panelists thought the seemingly inexorable rise in franchise valuations was driven by the increasing value of media and content rights. Aswath Damodaran, an NYU professor who focuses on valuation (and FiveThirtyEight contributor), commented that across the entertainment industry, owning content is becoming king. Ayes cited the NBA’s massive new TV deal as evidence of this trend. He noted that advertisers put a large premium on live content like sports because viewers are relatively captive during the event. Interestingly, none of the panel members thought that a team’s performance had a large impact on valuation. The most important factor, according to the panel, was metro area population and GDP. The New York Knicks can command significantly more from their local TV rights for bad basketball than the San Antonio Spurs can command for good.Despite the increase in the real earnings of teams as media deals improve, panelists (with the exception of Ayes), broadly agreed that sports franchises still do not make sense as actual businesses. While they are relatively low-risk and uncorrelated with other potential investments, almost any analysis of the current cash flows — or lack thereof — will not find them to be great investments. As Damodaran noted, the supply of franchises is relatively fixed, while demand has been growing. The panelists did not see this dynamic changing any time soon. — John Ezekowitz Friday, Feb 27, 2:20 p.m.The panel: “Basketball Analytics: Push the Tempo”The panelists: Shane Battier, Mike Zarren, Sue Bird, Mike D’Antoni, Pablo TorreAre basketball teams now so saturated with data and analytics that it’s hard to use them for a competitive advantage?Mike Zarren, assistant general manager for the Boston Celtics, raised an interesting point about what qualifies as analytics in an analytics age. “If I know how well a player slept last night, is that analytics?” The breadth of topics discussed — injuries, biometrics, pace, traditional positions, rest, incentives, shot selection, team chemistry — reveal what a truly broad spectrum of questions and answers fall under the umbrella of basketball analytics. However the field is defined, it all serves the same master: talent. Shane Battier, the poster boy for the adoption of analytic ideas at the player level, summed up the mission perfectly: “It’s about creating space to allow talent to do what they do.”Zarren returned to a well-worn focus at this conference — communication of insights — and defended that arena as the place where a competitive advantage still exists: “You have to use it, it has to affect the decisions you make. I don’t think there is a saturation of that yet.” — Ian Levy Friday, Feb 27, 10:40 a.m.The panel: “Innovators and Adopters”The panelists: Shane Battier, Michael Lewis, Daryl Morey, Jeff Van Gundy and Jackie MacMullanPity Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant. Out for the season with injuries after performances well below their high standards, they’re now punching bags in Boston, at least according to the first session of the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference on Friday.The other panelists treated the retired Battier more or less as Lewis depicted him in a New York Times Magazine article in 2009: the platonic ideal of the intelligent NBA player, one who incorporates insights from advanced statistical analysis to optimize his game for team success. (Battier initially resisted that framing, saying “it was about winning,” before eventually letting on that yeah, he was a pretty smart player.) LeBron James, with whom Battier won two titles in Miami, was the more typical player, open to occasional tastes of analytics-based tips.Anthony and Bryant, though, were depicted as the anti-Battiers, in a question by moderator MacMullan (who, like Battier, works for ESPN, which owns this website and sponsors Sloan). MacMullan noted their selfishness and focus on scoring over other ways of contributing to their teams. (To which my boss, Nate Silver, would respond that Anthony’s shooting makes his teammates better.) Battier made clear how much he relished having those two stars as foils, learning their tendencies so that he could neutralize their strengths when playing defense. MacMullan pointed out that Battier blocked more of their shots than any other player’s. Anthony also topped the Battier leaderboards for balls stolen and offensive fouls drawn. And the pair led another personal leaderboard Battier innovated: They gave him the most “looks of disdain” when they found out he’d be guarding them. — Carl Bialik Friday, Feb 27, 4:35 p.m.At last year’s Sloan conference, Dean Oliver was our ESPN colleague, leading analytics at the Stats & Info Group. This year, he’s here as the Sacramento Kings’ director of player personnel and analytics. I spotted him Friday huddled with a few of his peers from other NBA franchises. Oliver has been in the sports analytics business for three decades, and has seen it grow from a field wrestling with a lack of data to one with more data than it knows what to do with. He spoke with me about the similarities in working for teams and working for sports media, and about what it takes for a franchise to succeed at using analytics. — Carl Bialik Friday, Feb. 27, 6:10 p.m.Walking into a conference at Sloan today I walked by yet another guy in a sports coat — and then did a double take, because this guy’s blazer sleeves were rolled up…and he was a 13 year-old. There are some teenagers running around Sloan but none looked younger than Sam Hafetz and his friends, Manu Hurskovitz, 14, and Jonah White, 14. After calling their parents for permission (hi, Mr. Hurskovitz!), I dragged them to our podcast table. There, Jody Avirgan asked what brought them to Sloan (it’s their second year attending), why they love sports analytics, and what they’d do if they became GMs of the Celtics. — Chadwick MatlinAudio Playerhttps://fivethirtyeight.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/kidsatsloan.mp300:0000:0000:00Use Up/Down Arrow keys to increase or decrease volume.Friday, Feb. 27, 4:43 p.m.The panel: “Commissioner’s Perspective: Growing Soccer with Don Garber”The panelists: Don Garber, Grant WahlMLB and MLS share two letters and the pickle of how to balance tradition and innovation. Baseball’s struggle comes from within, as Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred showed earlier Friday. Major League Soccer isn’t as conflicted about changing rules and trying new technologies, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said. Its burden, unlike MLB’s, is its peripheral place in a global game.Garber said he wanted goal-line review technology, extra time put on scoreboards (instead of only a ref with a “Timex that probably cost 20 bucks” knowing how much time remains) and a whole lot more. “If I were king, we would have instant replay, we would have cameras on our players, we would be putting them on goalposts.” He’d put a microphone on the field. Players would wear GoPro cameras. He watched hockey players wear GoPros at the NHL All-Star Game and thought it was cool.But Garber can’t have all those things. Other sports’ U.S. pro leagues just need to get the owners to agree, but MLS needs the approval of IFAB, the International Football Association Board — or, as Garber called it, the International Federation of Somebody Who Has Something To Do With the Rules That’s Not Me. Garber’s message to IFAB: “Let us be the Guinea pigs.” He worries that the world’s most popular sport could lose its lead “just because of our structure. We should be able to use the power of our influence to lead.” — Carl Bialik Saturday, Feb. 28, 9:50 a.m.There are bold-faced names headlining the ninth annual Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, sure. But for academics like myself the real action is in the research paper contest, where academics and researchers are hoping to create the kinds of insights that the bold-faced names one day treat as gospel. For these researchers, Sloan marks the culmination of what can be more than a year’s worth of work. The stakes are high: top prize is $20,000, with second place worth $10,000. For some of the PhD students submitting papers, that may equal their annual salary.But until now, the mechanics of how this contest is judged have largely been cloudy (see an overview of the 2015 contest here, or my personal experience submitting a paper to the 2014 contest here). On Friday, conference co-lead Paul Campbell helped clarify how Sloan makes its picks. “We try to be consistent about what we solicit,” said Campbell. “We kind of have our perspective on the validity of the method, and making sure that the academic and mathematical rigor is there. Also, do the results make sense?”The 2015 research paper contest began back in September, when Campbell and this year’s judging committee, comprised of various MIT student organizers and academic advisers, received 189 abstracts. Of that total, 68 were invited to turn in a formal paper for submission in mid-December. Paper submissions were placed into one of four tracks: basketball, baseball, other sports or the business of sport. The top two submitted papers from each track were given the opportunity to present at this year’s conference. In addition, 11 papers were given a poster in the halls of the convention center.Each of the eight finalists were allotted a 20-minute presentation on Friday. The judging committee identified the top presentation in each of the four categories based on a 50-50 split of the presentation itself and the originating paper.“We have an idea of what the best analytically rigorous paper is, but we want to see if it is presented well. It’s an equal weighting with [the presentation] and the paper,” said Campbell. The four papers still in the running for the top prize, are:Baseball: Who is Responsible for a Called Strike? by Joe Rosales and Scott SprattBasketball: Counterpoints: Advanced Defensive Metrics for NBA Basketball by Alexander Franks, Andrew Miller, Luke Bornn and Kirk GoldsberryOther Sports: Assessing the productivity of NHL players using in-game win probabilities by Stephen PettigrewBusiness of Sports: Diamonds on the Line: Profits Through Investment Gaming by Clayton Graham.Those four finalists are given an additional 10 minutes with which to make their case, this time in front of a larger and more general audience, including Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey and FiveThirtyEight’s own Nate Silver.Those judges, according to Campbell, are asked to judge by something different than the last committee. “Which of these [papers] seems like the most applicable or potentially transformative within the industry?” $20,000 rides on the answer. — Mike Lopez Saturday, Feb. 28, 1:46 p.m.The panel: “Beating the Shift: Baseball Analytics in the Age of Big Data”The panelists: Sandy Alderson, Dan Brooks, Dave Cameron, Ben Lindbergh, Jonah KeriSloan’s flagship baseball panel largely focused on teams’ reactions to sabermetric findings. Alderson, the general manager of the New York Mets, spoke about the proliferation of defensive shifts, and how it has led to changes in the way certain players are valued — specifically right-handed power hitters.Along the same lines, no discussion of baseball analytics would be complete without some mention of strike zone analysis and catcher pitch-framing metrics. Despite the volume of research on the subject in recent years, the consensus of the group was that the market may still not be properly valuing catchers who “steal” strikes on the edge of the strike zone at a higher rate than their peers. Then again, part of that may relate to a theory that pitch-framing is a taught skill. (We’d have liked to hear more thoughts about how umpires doing better at calling an accurate strike zone has led to baseball’s aforementioned drop in run-scoring.)Finally, Keri asked the panel their thoughts about wins above replacement (WAR). The panel agreed WAR was a valuable framework, even if its individual parts can always stand to be improved. For his part, Alderson confirmed that teams use at least some version of it, even with its imperfections, because the idea of creating a cumulative statistic is appealing. — Harry Enten and Neil Paine FiveThirtyEight’s delegation made the pilgrimage to this year’s Sloan conference, a kind of mecca for anyone who’s obsessed with sports, data and retelling how they first felt when they read “Moneyball.” We updated all of Friday and Saturday from Boston, where Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and our own Nate Silver roamed the halls. Read on for highlights from the weekend. CORRECTION (Feb 28, 9:47 a.m.): A previous version of this article misstated the ages of Sam Hafetz and Jonah White. read more


OSU redshirt junior safety Tyvis Powell celebrates the Buckeyes’ 44-28 win in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1. Credit: Lantern File PhotoAfter having a league record 12 players drafted in the first four rounds of the 2016 NFL draft, the depth of former Ohio State Buckeyes in the NFL does not stop there. With the release of the 53-man rosters, 40 former Buckeyes have secured spots with NFL teams for the 2016 season, including 14 members from the class of 2016.Undrafted free agents Jalin Marshall and Tyvis Powell were the biggest question marks throughout training camps concerning former Buckeyes making rosters. However, both Marshall and Powell made the final roster cuts for the New York Jets and Seattle Seahawks, respectively.Leading the 2016 Ohio State draft class, Joey Bosa and Ezekiel Elliott are expected to step in and make a large impact for the San Diego Chargers and Dallas Cowboys, respectively. Cardale Jones made Buffalo Bills’ roster after throwing for 362 yards and one touchdown in three games of the preseason.Third-round pick of the Houston Texans, Braxton Miller, hopes to inject the offense with instant playmaking ability, similar to what he did in his final year at OSU. Miller will be competing for playing time with a number of young receivers that Houston has been able to gather through the past few drafts.Former quarterback turned receiver for the Cleveland Browns, Terrelle Pryor, has been able to find a good relationship with his new teammate Robert Griffin III after having a limited role last year. Marshall will be joined in New York by 2015 alumnus, Devin Smith, who missed the end of last season after a torn ACL in week 14. Smith will be eligible to play post-week six after opening camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list.The NFL season opens on Thursday, Sept. 8, when the Carolina Panthers play the Denver Broncos. Six former Buckeyes will play in that game. read more


Ohio State freshman forward Samantha Bouley skates toward the puck against Minnesota in Minneapolis on Jan. 21. Credit: Courtesy of OSU AthleticsThe Ohio State women’s hockey team split a two-game series with No. 4 Minnesota (17-5-3, 12-4-3) in Minneapolis this weekend, losing the first game 2-1 and tying the second 1-1,  ending in a 2-1 shootout victory. Saturday’s game marked the first time OSU has earned points against the Golden Gophers since Jan. 11, 2015. The Buckeyes moved to 11-12-3 overall and 5-12-3 in conference.On Friday night, Ohio State had a 1-0 lead through the first two periods. After a scoreless first period, junior forward Julianna Iafallo scored the first goal of the game off an assist from sophomore forward Maddy Field to put Ohio State up 1-0 in the second. Minnesota was kept out of the net for the remainder of the second period thanks to 18 saves from Buckeye goalie Kassidy Sauve.The Scarlet and Gray got off on the wrong foot in the third period with a penalty to put Minnesota on the power play. At 10:48 on the game clock, the Gophers scored their first goal of the game to tie things up 1-1. Shortly after, Minnesota scored again at 16:23 to take the 2-1 lead. The Gophers held off the Buckeyes for the remaining minutes and won 2-1. Sauve had 31 saves against Minnesota but the OSU offense had only eight shots on goal the entire game.On Saturday, the game started out in a similar fashion with another scoreless first period. At 9:38 in the second, Minnesota scored the first goal of the game to take a 1-0 lead. The two teams had a combined seven penalties in the first two periods. At 1:27 in the third period, OSU senior forward Katie Matheny scored off an assist from Field to tie the game 1-1. Sauve defended the Minnesota attack perfectly for the rest of the period and the two teams went into overtime at Ridder Arena. The Buckeye goaltender had 26 saves through regulation.Through five minutes of overtime, the teams remained scoreless and went to a shootout. Minnesota’s Lee Stecklein shot first and scored for the Gophers, but junior defenseman Dani Sadek responded with a goal of her own. The teams went through seven shooters until Iafallo got one past the Gopher goalie to secure the Buckeye win, 2-1. Due to NCAA rules, all shootout wins are recorded as ties in the record book.Minnesota, the best power play team in the NCAA, had seven power play opportunities this weekend, all of which were killed by the Buckeyes. OSU went 0-3-1 against the top-ranked Golden Gophers this season which is an improvement from last year’s 0-4-0.Next up, the Scarlet and Gray will travel to Duluth, Minnesota, for a two-game series against conference opponent No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth. read more


LAWRENCE, Kan. — All eyes are on Ohio State men’s basketball’s sophomore forward Jared Sullinger, whose availability is unknown as the Buckeyes prepare for their first road test of the season against the University of Kansas Jayhawks. After suffering back spasms in a Nov. 29 victory against Duke and missing No. 2-ranked OSU’s last game, Sullinger may miss consecutive games for the first time in his college career when the Buckeyes battle the No. 13-ranked Jayhawks Saturday in Lawrence, Kan. Sullinger’s health was the first topic OSU coach Thad Matta addressed during a Thursday press conference. “(Sullinger) is feeling better,” Matta said. “He’s doing more every day, but quite honestly, I don’t know if we’ll know until Saturday whether he’s going to play or not.” An OSU athletic department spokesman did not immediately respond to The Lantern’s Saturday request for comment regarding Sullinger’s status.  OSU sophomore guard Aaron Craft said Sullinger was walking around gingerly at the start of the week, but made noticeable improvements in the days that followed. Craft added that he was uncertain of Sullinger’s availability the Kansas game. “(Sullinger) has got the bounce back in his step,” Craft said. “We’ll just see how it goes.” Matta said he was amazed at how much better Sullinger was moving around, but that he doesn’t want to jeopardize his player’s health. “I’m thinking ‘big picture’ here,” Matta said. “Much more than Saturday’s game, or anything along those lines.” Sullinger started all 37 games OSU played last season and had started in each of OSU’s first seven games during the 2011-12 campaign until he was forced from the lineup for the team’s 64-35 win against Texas-Pan American last Saturday. Should Sullinger miss the Kansas game, Matta said the team will not deviate from its usual game plan. “To reinvent the wheel — we’re not going to do that,” he said. “I like the progress we’ve made this week.” Without Sullinger, guarding Thomas Robinson, Kansas’ 6-foot-10, 237-pound junior forward, may be complicated. “(Robinson) is a phenomenal basketball player, and probably the best that we’ve gone against this year,” Matta said. That task of defending Robinson would likely fall to junior forward Evan Ravenel or sophomore forward Deshaun Thomas, and then OSU still has the Jayhawks’ 7-foot, 235-pound redshirt junior center Jeff Withey to contend with. Ravenel said hard work could help nullify Robinson and Withey. “Getting early position, boxing out — things you learn when you first start playing basketball,” Ravenel said of his likely defensive assignments. “(Robinson) is a great athlete and he works hard.” With or without Sullinger, Craft said he thinks that playing on the road against Kansas is a great opportunity for OSU. He also thinks the Buckeyes can win. “If Jared doesn’t play, Jared doesn’t play,” he said. “We’re not going to miss a beat. We have great guys like (Ravenel) … that have come in and practiced just as hard as Jared has.” Ravenel agreed. “We work on execution,” Ravenel said. “We’re going to get in there and do everything we can.” OSU (8-0) tips off against Kansas (6-2) at 3:15 p.m. at Allen Fieldhouse. The game will be televised nationally on ESPN. read more


For a majority of the Ohio State football team, one thought comes to mind when they think of Saturday’s upcoming game against Nebraska: “We owe them one.” Some OSU players threw that phrase around after the team’s Wednesday practice at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center. First-year OSU coach Urban Meyer wasn’t part of the Buckeyes’ 34-27 loss in Lincoln, Neb., last season, but he understands his players want revenge. “I have heard them talk about this,” Meyer said Wednesday. “I’ve actually heard, I haven’t brought it up – maybe this weekend or Friday, I’ve got to evaluate where we’re at – but I hear them saying ‘We owe this team.’” Under the lights OSU will have quite the stage for revenge Saturday, with the game being a nationally televised broadcast on ABC, under the lights, with kickoff scheduled for 8:00 p.m. That should help the No. 12-ranked Buckeyes’ chances against the No. 21-ranked Cornhuskers, as Ohio Stadium should be closer to being the “inferno” Meyer has said many times he hopes The Horseshoe can be. Preparing for a night game can pose challenges, though. Players have much more time than usual waiting for kickoff, and what OSU will do Saturday morning and afternoon is something Meyer is still considering. “We’re still finalizing our plans for it. The good thing is, we have a lot of experience with night games, (OSU strength coach Mickey Marotti) and I,” Meyer said. “We want them rested. We have an idea but it hasn’t been completed yet.” Injury update OSU will be without at least one of their playmakers Saturday. Senior running back Jordan Hall will not play in Saturday’s contest as he is still recovering from an injury to his right knee. Buckeye redshirt junior safety C.J Barnett is a “maybe.” “Is there a maybe category? He’s got to get a lot better. He’s still limping around,” Meyer said. Sophomore defensive end Michael Bennett will play after suffering a groin injury before the Buckeyes’ game against Miami. Deep threat Twice this season, and once last year, OSU sophomore quarterback Braxton Miller and sophomore wide receiver Devin Smith have hooked up for a long, game-winning touchdown through the air. Throwing deep is something Meyer said he would like to do more often. He now trusts both Miller and Smith to make connections on long passes, but he wasn’t able to say that in the spring. “If you were to say that before Spring Game – April 21 or something – if you said that April 14 I would have looked at you like you had seven heads. (Smith) has earned that right,” Meyer said of Smith running deep patterns. Defending Nebraska The Huskers don’t have a big, bruising running back like the Buckeyes had to defend last week in Michigan State junior tailback Le’Veon Bell. Many of Nebraska’s players, both offensive and defensive, are of the quicker and leaner build. Don’t say Nebraska isn’t physical, though. “No, no, no. This is a tough outfit. It’s a very physical defense. They fly around. A much different scheme, they try to push you east-west,” Meyer said. Against MSU, the Buckeyes had to focus on mainly just one player – Bell. Nebraska has three capable runners: redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Martinez, senior running back Rex Burkhead and sophomore tailback Ameer Abdullah. Meaning the OSU defense doesn’t have much room for error. “You miss (Martinez) and it’s a home run. That Burkhead just keeps coming at you, coming at you. Their offensive line, I think their offensive line is very good. They block several players as well as anyone I’ve seen,” Meyer said. read more


The No. 8 Ohio State Buckeyes (6-0) will open divisional play this weekend, when they travel to Bloomington, Ind., to face the Indiana Hoosiers (2-3). First-year coach Urban Meyer talked about the upcoming challenge the Hoosiers might present, last weekend’s game against Nebraska and recruiting at the weekly Big Ten football coaches’ teleconference Tuesday. Looking past the Hoosiers? After back-to-back wins against ranked opponents, including a 63-38 drubbing of then-No. 21 Nebraska last weekend, the Buckeyes seem to be a confident bunch. But are they too confident? Meyer said it’s important for his team to realize there is plenty of football to be played before they can be considered a great team. “These kids are 6-0 and a lot of people are telling them how good they are,” Meyer said. “Quite honestly, we have a long way to go.” It is something that, arguably, happens every year in college football. Teams can win a big game against a ranked team, ride that high all week, and then lose to an inferior opponent that they underestimate a week later. Meyer said, however, that he is not concerned with his team’s focus as they prepare for an Indiana team that has lost its last three games. “We’re not at the point that we can start overlooking anybody,” Meyer said. “I’m concerned about execution and stopping them, not overlooking them.” Last week’s win bodes well for the future Last Saturday’s win against Nebraska could have major implications on the OSU football program for years to come. Meyer wasn’t able to give an exact number of recruits in attendance, but said that “there were a lot” of prospective Buckeyes in the Horseshoe last Saturday. Meyer also said the atmosphere in the stadium during the Buckeyes’ blowout left an impression of some of the nation’s elite high school prospects. “It’s a little risky sometimes to have a bunch of recruits come in on a big game, because if you fail and you lose, it’s miserable,” Meyer said. “The atmosphere was tremendous. The way we won in the second half, that was very critical for recruiting.” Miller, the Heisman Hopeful? As one of college football’s leaders in rushing yards per game, and the quarterback of the Big Ten’s only unbeaten team, sophomore Braxton Miller is gaining hype as a Heisman Trophy contender. “He’s one of the best players in the college game,” said Indiana coach Kevin Wilson. Wilson did say that, “there are better players out there,” but pointed out that the sophomore quarterback will only improve as he grows into Meyer’s system. “He’s young,” Wilson said. “Knowing a little bit about him, and knowing the coach that he’s got, he will get better and better. You’re not seeing the best of him.” A key component in winning the Heisman Trophy is having big games on big stages against ranked opponents. Miller might have done that last Saturday, rushing for a career-high 186 yards and scoring two touchdowns in a win against Nebraska. Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, however, was not willing to anoint Miller as a favorite for college football’s most prestigious individual award. “That’s up to you guys,” Pelini said. read more